Daily Archives: July 10, 2011

What do we want from our system?

see end of post for info on this picture

I feel compelled to start, once again, with one of my favorite quotes:

Ammianus Marcellinus relates an anecdote of the Emperor Julian which illustrates the enforcement of this principle in the Roman law. Numerius, the governor of Narbonensis, was on trial before the Emperor, and, contrary to the usage in criminal cases, the trial was public. Numerius contented himself with denying his guilt, and there was not sufficient proof against him. His adversary, Delphidius, “a passionate man,” seeing that the failure of the accusation was inevitable, could not restrain himself, and exclaimed, “Oh, illustrious Cæsar! if it is sufficient to deny, what hereafter will become of the guilty?” to which Julian replied, “If it suffices to accuse, what will become of the innocent?” Rerum Gestarum, L. XVIII, c. 1.

Coffin v. United States. And yet, in these days, I look around and see more of Delphidius than of Caesar. Surely, you have heard of Casey Anthony and the verdict of not guilty rendered in her capital trial, that has sent a million heads spinning and the veins of nearly half the population of the country pumping with boiling blood calling for vengeance and murder.

The appreciation of a system which presumes an individual innocent unless the State can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt seems to be shrinking to a select few who make their living in that system. For the rest, the pure exhilaration of having a pre-determined verdict of guilt (and isn’t it always guilt?) announced, confirming their increasingly myopic and monochromatic view of the world is the only expectation.

Do we want a system that protects the individual or do we want a system that confirms our view of the guilt of those arrested? Do we want a system that lifts the substance of the accusation up to the light – and upon finding  it wanting – discards it? Or do we want a system that goes by the smell test? Do we want a system where no one who is arrested is not guilty? Do we want so much to believe in the infallibility of our so-called protectors? Do we want a system that allows us to so easily and hypocritically create an artificial divide between the mob and the mobbed?

Does the system only work when the guilty are convicted and the innocent are acquitted, or does it work when some who may be guilty are nonetheless set free? Does the system work when some who are likely innocent are not?

we are mindful that it may seem unjust to allow a conviction to stand when the evidence on which the conviction rested has been discredited. It must be remembered, however, that, once properly convicted, the petitioners no longer are cloaked in the mantle of the presumption of innocence.

Gould v. Commissioner of Correction, while doing just that. Gould is a case I wrote about some time ago, where a habeas court reversed Gould’s (and his co-defendant Taylor’s) conviction for murder on the grounds that they were actually innocent. From that decision:

“A senseless, cold-blooded, execution style murder was committed in the early morning hours of July 4th, 1993,” Fuger begins. Eugenio Deleon Vega went to his small Fair Haven bodega, La Casa Green, to open shop at 5:08 a.m. “Before the hour of six AM, before he could even arrange the morning newspapers, he was dead.  He had been executed, shot once in the left temple with a projectile from a .38 caliber semiautomatic pistol. These are indisputable facts.”

Fuger sets the scene for his sharp reproof with a blazing sub-header on Page One.

“This case rises and falls on the testimony of Doreen Stiles,” the sub-header reads, quoting New Haven’s Senior Assistant State Attorney James Clark’s words during Taylor and Gould’s 1995 Superior Court trial.

“No truer statement has ever been spoken,” Fuger wrote.

Stiles, a drug-addicted police informant, was the only supposed eyewitness who placed the defendants at the murder scene. DNA evidence found at the murder scene did not match Gould or Taylor. The state’s case rested on Stiles’ testimony, as Clark openly admitted during the trial. Stiles came forward and recanted her statement in 2006, allowing the defendants to open a joint habeas corpus claim of actual innocence, based on new evidence.

It is “crystal clear,” wrote Fuger, “that the sole piece of evidence, the only thread that links George Gould and Ronald Taylor to this senseless murder is the testimony of Doreen Stiles. If this tether breaks, then there is absolutely nothing that implicates these two men.”

“At the trial of the case in 1995, the case rose because Doreen Stiles made that linkage; at the trial of the habeas petition in 2009, the case must fall, once again, based upon the testimony of Doreen Stiles,” Fuger wrote.

The Supreme Court in its desire to so respectfully uphold the notion of finality, trips over itself to make absolutely clear that they seems somewhat squeamish about writing this decision, but in the end, they really have to. They don’t, really. I know it, they know and you should know it too. The verbal gymnastics are impressive:

In sum, the recantations by Stiles and Boyd may demonstrate that there no longer is any credible evidence that the petitioners did commit the crimes of which they were convicted. What the habeas court’s decision lacks is any discussion of affirmative evidence that would prove by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioners did not commit the crimes. We therefore conclude that the habeas court’s judgments must be reversed…

Emphasis added by me to point out the subtle use of words to support their conclusion.

So, if the only testimony which links the defendants to the murder is now discredited, and that’s not enough, then what must someone do to convince a court of their innocence? I’m glad you asked:

First, taking into account both the evidence produced in the original criminal trial and the evidence produced in the habeas hearing, the petitioner must persuade the habeas court by clear and convincing evidence, as that standard is properly understood and applied in  the context of such a claim, that the petitioner is actually innocent of the crime of which he stands convicted. Second, the petitioner  must establish that, after considering all of that evidence and the inferences drawn therefrom, as the habeas court did, no reasonable  fact finder would find the petitioner guilty.

Not only does one have to prove to the system that they affirmatively did not commit this crime, but they also have to prove that a jury would not find them guilty. It isn’t enough, here, that one presents evidence proving that they did not commit the crime – although how that is to be applied as a universal standard is beyond me.

Are we to decide on the innocence of individuals who are caught up in our system based on their their sheer luck that there exists some physical evidence such as DNA that proves they did not commit the crime? Must we require such a circumstance beyond their control? And what do we say to those who are lucky enough to completely undermine the State’s case against them, yet unlucky enough to have no independent corroborative evidence of their “alleged” innocence? Finality trumps innocence? Form over substance? Perhaps.

It really doesn’t come as any surprise, though, to me – and perhaps to you as well – that our rules are such. That there is a bias toward convicting and keeping people convicted. I sit here, day after day, reading as cases and reports of cases come flooding across my line of sight – and every day it’s the same: we love pronouncing judgment on others and love our moral indignation and our self-assumed superiority. We are better. They are guilty. And how dare anyone disagree with us:

A red-haired woman in her 60s who moved to Florida from Michigan, she told the court she worked at a Publix Grocery when she was questioned as a potential juror.

Now, she’s in hiding.

Juror number 12 left Florida. Her husband, fighting back tears, tells NBC News he’s not sure when she’ll return to her home in Florida.

Why? He says she fears half of her co-workers want her head on a platter.

The other may understand what she did, but she didn’t want to face them.

She was due to retire in the fall, but Juror number 12, after being released from sequestration, chose to call her boss to announce she couldn’t come to work. She didn’t feel safe.

She retired over the phone.

The husband, who sat with two NBC News producers, glanced repeatedly at his blood pressure monitor on the coffee table and the Bible next to it.

One day they’ll come for you and there’ll be no one left to speak up for you.

What do we want from our system? A rubber stamp, apparently.

[For an interesting local connection to the image above, see here.]

Do video lineups lead to accurate eyewitness ID?

That’s what researchers from Royal Holloway University of London Eyewitness Group seem to be suggesting, as per this BBC news story. I haven’t been able to find the actual research paper or its conclusions, but presumably its in the offing. It will be interesting to read and see what the basis for this conclusion is. The current statistics, as per the report, seem pretty dire: only 4 out of 10 witnesses make accurate identifications. For more on eyewitness ID posts on this blog, click here. If you fancy yourself a pretty astute observer, try Gary Wells’ Eyewitness ID test.